Why do we sing Auld Lang Syne?

In a matter of hours, the annul countdown is due to beckon across the world and we’ll conclude it with a familiar tune. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is an old timey and lyrically-archaic Scottish song that, year-after-year, we shamelessly slur out with our arms linked to the ones we love. Yet, why do we sing this specific celebratory song and how has it become such a widespread phenomenon?

 

The Song that ‘Nobody Knows’ and its Origins

The song itself is derived from an old Scottish poem that had often been put to the tune of an old folk song (you’ll find this a lot with old music, lyrics and tunes would often get copied and pasted over years and years). However, it, along with many other aspects of Scottish culture in the 18th century, was under peril of being wiped out by those pesky sassanach – the English. At that point in time, the union between the Scots and the English was a consolidation in its infancy; when ‘Auld Lang Syne’ was first published in 1788, the Act of Union had only been signed 81-years prior. Being a land of catholic dissenters, Scotland would face difficulties as the English’s attempts at sweeping its unique cultural heritage under the rug. However, this was not an inevitability thanks to the likes of several individuals, namely including that of Robert Burns.  

Burns was a Scottish poet and lyricist who, in the latter half of the 1700s, took it upon himself to venture between every nook and cranny of Albion in search of unrecorded poetry and music. His efforts would preserve a myriad of Scottish songs, though perhaps the most widely remembered is ‘Auld Lang Syne’; the likes of Burns acquired the tune after allegedly hearing an old man sing it.  

Lyrically, this song has aged a great deal; through its amalgamation of both disused Scottish and English worlds, the English-speaking world has inherited the perfect song to croon to with a pint in hand, it would seem. The title, Auld Lang Syne, itself can be translated as ‘old long since’, though this can be more generally summed up as meaning ‘times gone by’ or ‘old times’. It’s a song about celebrating the past in a jovial manner, thematically this fits the whole schtick of New Year’s Eve – even down to raising a glass for a bygone year.

The Song that ‘Nobody Knows’ becomes a song that everyone knows

Whilst ‘Auld Lang Syne’ has found itself being used in a myriad of different festivities (with an interesting side-note being that the tune was, until recently, a part of South Korea’s national anthem), it has near solely become associated with that of New year. However, there are many Gaelic folk songs that that are as earnest and reminiscent as ‘Auld Lang Syne’, so what drove this song to prominence.

Well, when you begin to look at the song in a fundamental manner, the song (whilst lyrically a bit of a challenge) has a very universal and easy-going tune to it, making for a perfect sing-along song. But, perhaps the main reason for its spread was because of one particular American musician.

On New Year’s Eve, 1929, Guy Lombardo and his band took to performing the piece, the likes of which was broadcasted over the radio to millions. Lombardo, who was a Canadian-American, reportedly had learnt of the song whilst in Ontario; perhaps one could blame Canada’s noteworthy community of those with a Scottish descent for the widespread usage of this song. Nevertheless, the tune proved to be a massive hit and over time, the song that initially was broadcasted in New York, became a world-wide tradition.

This was only elevated by Hollywood, who, throughout its Golden Era, would commonly used this tune for emotional scenes. Legendary director Frank Capra used the folk song three times in three separate films (most notably his 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life), each to convey the warmth and sentimental theme of this song.

And as America bloated into the worlds top dog, a lot of its traditions and imports were thrust into the world’s view. Namely that of this sing-song tradition that has since become a quintessential conclusion to every year of the English-speaking world.

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